Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

Silicon Valley Is Distorting How Millennials Define Success

December 19, 2015, 4:30 PM UTC
©Adam B. Auel

The MPW Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What should every 20-something do to set themselves up for success? is by Robin Koval, president and CEO of Truth Initiative.

There have been a lot of steps in my career journey, from bottom-rung administrative assistant with poor typing skills, to leading an advertising agency in New York, and now CEO of the one of the largest public health organizations in the U.S. So, in the spirit of paying it forward, here are a few “wish I had known that then” tips for 20-somethings setting out on their own climb:

Get over yourself
This may sound harsh, but I mean it in the kindest way possible: you’re not as special as you think you are. If you’re a millennial reading this, chances are you were raised by well-meaning, but unfortunately as we now know, misguided “helicopter parents” who micromanaged your every move and lavished praise for even the most mundane accomplishments. While positive self-esteem and encouragement are vitally important to child development, research now shows that all those sixth place soccer trophies may have hurt you more than they helped. In the real world, competition is a good thing. It challenges us. It motivates us. It inspires us to be better at what we do. I learned quickly that there are no silver medals in advertising. At the end of the day, only one agency wins the pitch. The sooner you get over yourselves, dig in, and get down to the hard work of winning, the better off you’ll be.

Ditch the dream
All the pop-culture pseudo-science about visualizing our dreams has obscured the fact that between the dream of success and the reality of achieving it lies in the gritty, boring, sometimes disappointing and usually painful process of doing the actual work. My grandmother was fond of saying: “If you want to make your dreams come true, wake up already!” So, what are you waiting for? Stop dreaming about what you want to accomplish. Estee Lauder had it right when she said, “I never dreamed about success. I worked for it.”

Forego the long-term plan
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a plan for the future. It would be foolish NOT to consider what’s to come. But it’s best to think of a plan as a loose framework rather than a detailed roadmap. Focusing on the
present helps keep each of us open to new or emerging opportunities that may not have been “part of the plan”. And let’s be honest, while having a plan is great, once your plan meets the real world, it’s pretty likely you’ll never get to execute it quite the way you’d hoped. Success more often results from being flexible and open to plan B, C, or even D. James Dyson had to try more than 5000 times before he perfected his now-famous, Dual Cyclone Vacuum Cleaner. He said, “I go to a place I never would have imagined because I was willing to learn what didn’t work.”

Wait for it
Popular culture sends us the much-distorted message that unless we’re billionaires by the age of 25, winners of
The Voice, or the next sensation on Shark Tank, we’re losers. We learn from reality TV that success is an overnight game. We watch The Biggest Loser and think it’s possible to lose 60 pounds in 60 minutes. This idea that minimal effort equals maximum success is a myth. The notion that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 30 has set young professionals up for disappointment. It turns out that the majority of those Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are actually successful are older than 40. The intense pressure to be extremely successful at a young age causes many 20-somethings to leave jobs too early, undervalue their experiences, lose patience with themselves, and have trouble committing to a goal, career, or even mission. So, as you ponder your future, don’t be afraid to put in a little “wait” training.

Maintain focus
Keeping your eyes on the prize can be hard in our very distracting culture. In fact, a Harvard researcher has coined a term for it, “attention deficit trait” and we give it to ourselves with our always-on, always-connected lifestyles. If we hold our convictions steady; we’ll eventually reap the rewards. Case in point: my organization’s truth® youth tobacco prevention campaign. When the truth campaign launched in 2000, the teen smoking rate was 23
%. Today, the teen smoking rate has dropped to just 7%. It has taken us 15 years, but we are now in sight of being able to “Finish It” for good. Although we’ve had to reinvent our strategy, message, and techniques for an entirely new generation of young people, we’ve never lost focus on our original core belief that giving teens the facts about tobacco will lead them to do the right thing.

It’s been a while since I was a newly minted college graduate competing to win an entry-level job at an advertising agency. As I look back, I am convinced now more than ever, that what got me from there to here is more than smarts or talent; it is my willingness to dig in, be open, bounce back and never lose my passion. I like to call that “grit”– and that never goes out of style.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: What should every 20-something do to set themselves up for success?

Why Women Need to Brag More by Teresa Hassara, president of Institutional Retirement at TIAA-CREF.

Never Focus On This at Your First Job by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

This Important Skill Is Often Overlooked In Leaders by Sally Blount, dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

The Secret to Finding Success In Your 20s by Ritu Anand, head of talent management at Tata Consultancy Services.

The Common Myth Young Professionals Need to Avoid by Yolanda Seals-Coffield, principal at PwC.

How Millennials Can Succeed at Their First Job by Lynn Perkins, CEO of UrbanSitter.

How to Overcome Challenges of a Career Change by Lisa Lambert, vice president of Intel Capital.

What every 20-something should know about their first job by Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte.